Let's reinstate pepper's "king of spices" title and add a little pep to our cooking.
In our kitchens, pepper is salt's best friend, but rarely do we ponder the ebony over the ivory. Sure, salt comes in curious textures and subtle flavors, but a sprinkling of fragrant pepper can whet your appetite and deliver a wallop of excitement.
Whereas salt may come from many places, members of the Piper family thrive only in certain tropical climes. Grown in tall, leafy columns, the climbing vines are native to Kerala on the Malabar Coast of South India. People have been harvesting pepper's fruits (called drupes until they're dried into wrinkly peppercorns) since ancient times. Enchanting people with an uncommon scent and pungency, pepper proved its versatility by pairing well with other ingredients and playing a role in medicinal remedies. By 2000 B.C., pepper was widely used in Indian cooking and traders were introducing it to other parts of the world. It became the most valuable commodity in the spice trade between tropical Asia and Europe. Pepper's sea-and-land journey took months and involved multiple middlemen who drove up prices and made it expensive at the end of the line.
Watch broccoli stems become crisp-tender while the florets get deliciously frizzled:
Having pepper signaled riches and power; it was status. Pharaoh Ramses II was mummified with peppercorns in his nose. For the Goths to lift their siege, Romans paid a ransom that included 3,000 pounds of pepper. In the 1400s, Columbus sailed westward from Spain looking for gold and pepper but returned from the Americas with chiles, suggesting that their spicy heat was a great sub for that of pricey peppercorns. As chiles spread, the similarity stuck. People began using "pepper" to mean both peppercorns and chiles, though they're not botanical kin.
The term pepper comes from the Sanskrit pippali, which refers to long pepper (Piper longum), a slender fruit that was the go-to before round Piper nigrum got serious traction.
Nowadays, pepper is readily available, but to experience peppy pepper, forget the blah, pre-ground stuff sold in cans, and buy whole peppercorns and grind them yourself. Robust Tellichery, which you can even find at Costco, is a great all-purpose peppercorn, says Lior Lev Sercarz, author of The Spice Companion. To experiment, he suggests buying small quantities of quality wine and green peppercorns to try in everyday cooking. I often test-drive pepper by sautéing a mild vegetable like baby bok choy with a splash of oil, pinches of salt, and enough pepper for me to detect a bit of warmth. Like wine, pepper reflects where it's grown, also known as terroir. What we buy mostly comes from India and Southeast Asia. Depending on origin, the pepper may be piney, citrusy, or herbaceous.
At my house, the pepper mill is for garnishing and table use. For prepping and cooking, I reach for a jar of pepper that I've ground in small batches in an electric coffee grinder dedicated to spices. So, start your own peppercorn collection: The perfume of each transports me to a different place, and hopefully it'll do the same for you.
Try It: Indian Spice-Rubbed Shrimp
Pepper was the primary heat source in Indian dishes until the Portuguese introduced chiles in the 1500s. Both are used for this fiery shrimp dish from Goa, a former Portuguese colony, in southern India. Tranditionally, feni (a Goan cashew fruit or coconut palm liquor) would go into this type of dish. This recipe, inspired by author and Indian food expert Julie Sahni, calls for gin—an aromatic nod to the dish's origins that also helps carry the spice notes.
View the Recipe: Indian-Spice-Rubbed Shrimp
6 Pepper Varieties to Try
Look for these at well-stocked supermarkets or gourmet or health food markets. For higher quality and more variety, check dedicated spice shops.
Unripe and freeze-dried or brined to preserve their flavor. Look for ones from Thailand.
Dried to an intense, fruity pungency. Indian Malabar is common, but Tellicherry is the finest.
Good ones are cream-colored and pungent (not super hot). Muntok and Sarawak are best.
Pricey because they take longest to mature, these offer a sweet heat. Kampot is excellent.
Easily crushable and nearly hollow, pink peppercorns are not related to black peppercorns, but are the dried berries of Schinus molle, an evergreen tree.
Distinctive floral notes evoke garam masala; chop or break these first to make grinding easier.
Andrea Nguyen is a James Beard award-winning cookbook author and culinary instructor.